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Redouble efforts to address issues in black community

A Times Editorial
Published September 27, 2006

The sparse turnout at a town hall meeting on key issues facing North Pinellas African-Americans was a disappointment, but could have been predicted. Despite organizers' best efforts, such meetings held in or on behalf of the black community in recent years have drawn few people.

It is important to know why.

Is it that North Pinellas African-Americans are so content with their lives that they feel no pull to civic activism?

Is it that they have no faith that a better quality of life is possible?

Do they distrust those organizing the meetings and trying to show leadership? Are the meetings held at inconvenient times and places for working people? Do they need transportation? Would they just rather stay home?

Minority residents missed a great opportunity to contribute their thoughts last week when the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas Branch of the NAACP held the first of four scheduled town meetings on issues facing the black neighborhoods of North Pinellas. The meeting was held at 6:30 Thursday night at the North Clearwater Performing Arts Academy on Kings Highway.

NAACP officers, police officials and Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox were there, ready to listen to the public's concerns.

Wilcox's attendance alone should have drawn a crowd, considering his much-publicized positions concerning race and the needs of minority students.

However, only about 20 people showed up - a turnout one attendee called "pitiful." No one seemed to have the answer to why an important, well-publicized town hall meeting drew so few people.

The purpose of the meeting, and of three more planned between now and next August, was to start addressing the results of a survey the NAACP conducted last year to identify the issues of most concern to North Pinellas African-Americans. The 1,564 respondents identified education, law enforcement and economic development as the most important issues.

They were right to focus in on education as key. Wilcox announced to the group that only 42 percent of black youngsters enrolled in Pinellas schools graduate from high school. Only 52 percent of black girls do. Those numbers contrast with a graduation rate of 75 percent for white students. Wilcox called the disparity "horrific," and talked about the programs the district has created to try to narrow the gap. It is not narrowing fast enough, he said.

The school district is seeking more mentors for black students, working to hire more black teachers, pushing reading skills and trying to convey to black families the importance of parents' dedicated involvement in their children's education, from attending school events to setting aside a quiet time and place for study at home.

Law enforcement and economic development have long been important to minority neighborhoods. No matter the color of their skin, residents want to feel safe in their homes and on their neighborhood streets, yet minority neighborhoods continue to have higher crime numbers than residents think they should. Economic development is vital to minorities because it can provide more jobs at higher wages and help renew declining sections of minority communities.

The poor turnout, given the importance of the subject matter, no doubt was depressing to NAACP officers and community leaders who attended. Before the next town hall meeting, planned for sometime in January in Largo, those leaders should seek an answer to why the turnout was so low and see if they need to modify the format to improve their chance of getting public buy-in. If the public won't come to the meeting, the meeting may need to go to them - to their churches, their storefronts, their front porches.

The leaders who did attend last week's meeting also should carry another lesson from the poor turnout: Like it or not, their role is more important than they thought. They have organizational skills, they can speak articulately about important issues, they can establish relationships with leaders outside the black community. Even if they don't have as many people behind them as they would like, it is vital that they be visible and work hard on behalf of the virtually silent community they represent.

[Last modified September 27, 2006, 07:26:33]

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